Whatever sort of impression the Korean Chamber Orchestra was expecting us to take away Saturday night at Jordan Hall, their show left me both entertained and perplexed, but mostly perplexed. The 24-piece string ensemble typically plays without a conductor, although Music Director and concertmaster Min Kim cued vigorously from his seat. Their modest selection of what I would characterize as “light classics” included a backup for the accomplished Korean violinist Soyoung Yoon in a tango-inflected sort-of concerto by Astor Piazzola; they also served as a studio orchestra for the puzzling mezzo-soprano Carly Paoli.
So they are a versatile group, or at least a game one. During their finest moments the Orchestra displayed an attractive, glossy tone that was rich and colorful. The three selections without famous soloists played to this strength, yielding solid interpretations of lesser repertoire. I’ve never been a fan of Mendelssohn’s juvenile string symphonies; the precociousness isn’t enough by itself to sustain my interest. The Orchestra made the Symphony No. 10 in B Minor sound pleasant, but did not attempt to impose anything interpretive on it to give it greater depth. Something similar happened with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, which has a native ponderousness that the Orchestra did not attempt to leaven; indeed, if anything their sound became thicker and deeper. Perhaps it matched the sumptuousness of Elgar’s material, but the result was quite earth-bound. Surprisingly, the most persuasive and satisfying performance was of the 1992 Prologue and Variations of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Neoclassical in spirit, with a clear architecture and easily understood argument, it is also an expert essay in the sound of massed strings. The embryonic material in the Prologue expands and matures in each of the four following variations. Often long meandering lines sang over repeated or contrapuntally constructed accompaniment, giving the Orchestra a chance to make quite beautiful sheets of sound.
What to say about the songs performed by Carly Paoli? Perhaps it is a clue that the very first line of her biography tells us that she “launched her international career in 2014 after being appointed a Brand Ambassador for luxury Swiss watch brand, Bedat & Co., Geneve, who design exclusively for women.” It goes on to name drop Celine Dion, Aerosmith guitarist Steven Tyler and both Jennifer and Kate Hudson. She is an imposing and striking woman with looks that improbably combine Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. She appeared on stage in a sparkly black dress, moving at a stately, even glacial, pace, trailing along the only conductor we saw all evening, Sergey Smbattyan. She then sang before a microphone, her voice emerging from speakers at the extreme right and left of the stage. Despite the amplification and presumably the care of the conductor, her voice was frequently inaudible in its middle and lower ranges; higher up it sounded nice enough, but it was hard to tell how much credit the microphone deserved. The arrangements of Gershwin, Weill and F. J. Obradors were typical soupy realizations for strings; the reserve of the orchestra worked well here to prevent the proceedings from tipping all the way into kitsch. One of the Obradors songs was actually quite engaging, but the remainder were difficult to hear, and Paoli’s gestural repertoire surprisingly limited.
Things got crowded for Romano Musumarra’s cinematic-sounding and thankfully brief Ave Maria. The composer joined the orchestra on piano, as well as violinist/impresario Ivo Mirkovic, coincidentally the president of the presenting organization. Mirkovic provided an unamplified obbligato part which was more audible than our singer. There quite loud and coarse-voiced claque erupted like clockwork after each song. I thought it was terrible, but according to Paoli’s biography “Oscar- and Tony-winning lyricist Don Black… who co-wrote Michael Jackson’s Ben and James Bond themes The World is Not Enough and Diamonds are Forever, has described Carly’s as ‘a unique and special talent with the sort of voice that comes along once in a generation.’” So what do I know? The whole production gave the impression of a band on hire.
Thank goodness, then, for violinist Soyoung Yoon. The veteran of the competition-wars, winning the 2002 Menuhin Competition at 17 and later the Wieniawski Competition in 2011 appeared in Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Written in the early 70s, the Seasons has been in extreme vogue in recent years. The composer’s recastings of tango are infectious and exciting, if formulaic. The Four Seasons may not be his most innovative work; its success seems due more to the title of the work than its contents. Nevertheless it has had a champion in none other than Gidon Kremer, whose recording had the right marketing savvy, sandwiching the tangos in between Vivaldi’s concertos to preserve their sense of surprise. Played one after another, the similarities become a bit dulling, especially since I defy anyone new to them to match the movements to their assigned seasons (not counting the one that quotes directly from Vivaldi at length). Yoon is a striking player with great personality and stage presence, and a fiery technique. She owned the stage, nearly dancing through her performance, and made constant eye contact with orchestra, pushing and pulling with glances and glares to shape the accompaniment around her. It was great fun, especially when Yoon’s extrovert passion would break out into virtuosic outbursts like sudden fireworks. The players partnered capably but deferentially, unafraid to lean into Pizaoola’s scratchings and swoopings. In the presence of Yoon’s outsize personality, they gave their most nuanced and flexible performance of the night. One hopes they will continue to seek out artists of her makeup, and leave the brand ambassadors behind.